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How can SMEs benefit from Automation in Manufacturing as Big Players do?

Our Success Stories in Automation & Testing Systems Projects for SMEs

1.0 Introduction

Automation is well advanced in many industries and has played a major role in making products; look at the electronics manufacturing industry where pick & place machines have been used for years, the pharmaceutical and food industries where strict hygiene standards and high volumes demand the least amount of human interaction. Car makers use automation equipment and robots heavily in their assembly lines to become less dependent on manual labour whilst achieving consistent quality and boost productivity.

The challenge is for small to medium sized companies in the more traditional manufacturing segments. How can they transform their factories into the 21st century? The task may be daunting but with a few simple questions you can determine where to start.

· Identify assembly lines/processes that are major revenue generators and use labour-intensive production steps

· Look at mature processes that do not change frequently with least product variants

· Define the return on investments (ROIs) and start with a project that yields a high return (cap the maximum spend)

· Generate system specifications and clearly define what process steps the automation/testing system must carry out including cycle time, yields, up-time, etc.

Once you have scoped the project, find the right automation system partner who is interested, level headed and has a demonstrated track record to deliver projects with excellent performance.

2.0 Automation & Testing System Examples

The advantages of buying automation/testing systems from China are multiple:

a) There is significant knowledge & skill available as the times of “cheap labour” are long gone and international competitiveness of Chinese suppliers increasingly depends on factory automation

b) Systems manufactured in China are of high quality; there are no capacity bottlenecks and delivery lead-times are short

c) International component brands such as Siemens, Festo, SMC, Keyence, Cognex, Schunk etc. are readily available and widely used – so, you do not have to worry about getting spare parts and local support once the machine has been delivered

d) There is good segmentation and specialization to handle specific commodities (eg connector assembly, electric motor mfg., car window winding systems, …)

Over the years, we have learnt that on the SW side there is room for improvement as program architecture is often anything but modular!

Here are a few examples of successfully delivered systems.

2.1 Plastic Part Assembly Automate

  • Function: insertion of steel ball into plastic part & fitting of rubber cap

  • Inspection/checking (fitting of cap, steel ball position)

  • Cycle Time: 6 sec

  • Up-time: > 95%

  • Yield: > 98%

2.2 Metal Clamp Assembly Line

  • Function: plastic strip gluing, logo punching, screw/nut insertion & fastening,

  • Inspection/checking (8 different product variants)

  • Cycle Time: 35 sec

  • Up-time: > 90%

  • Yield: > 95%

2.3 Part Sorting Machine

  • Function: sort 3 different types of plastic parts (500k parts/annum)

  • Cycle Time: 15 sec

  • Up-time: > 95%

  • Yield: > 98%

3.0 Conclusions & Recommendations

· Do not automate “chaos” or what you do not understand – be absolutely clear about what processes need automation and why

· Ensure that you adopt an “open architecture” and do not tie yourself into proprietary solutions that may limit your flexibility

· Use appropriate technology and resist using fancy components (eg robots) where more traditional handling methods may do

· Work with your automation system partner to define the standard/brands of key components (pneumatics, vision systems, controllers, …); avoid a hotch-potch of different brands on different machines – this will make operation and maintenance easier

· Select a competent partner with profound manufacturing knowledge and pragmatic thinking. This is important if you buy a system from Asia as your need someone who you can trust and is your “eyes and ears on the ground”

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